Yesterday I was driving to work and saw in my peripheral vision, a white sedan with something that could have been sirens on the roof getting on the freeway behind me. I felt the jolt of adrenaline hit my stomach, and as I instinctively slowed down and surreptitiously watched the car drove closer into view, I was relieved to find that it was not a police car, just a white taxi cab.
This got me thinking about the HADD theory of the evolution of religion and how it presumes to explain the deeply subjective phenomena of religious psychology with a superficial tactical reflex. Ironically, I feel like the HADD theory explains itself better than it does religion - assuming that every human behavior is an agent of natural selection is an overextended statistical gambit which capitalizes on the successes of evolutionary biology. It is the disembodied spirit of Darwin which the HADD theory identifies as the progenitor of religious universality.
One example of HADD which shows up in articles about the evolutionary psychology of religion is that people might mistake a rock for a bear but generally won't mistake a bear for a rock. This makes sense, and is used as support to connect that dots to the idea that this 'agency detection' is a likely basis for the idea of spirits, ghosts, etc. Conscious agents which are independent from physical form.
In my police car example however, you can see that there would be a clear survival advantage to having a hair-trigger reflex for threats in general, whether or not those threats had any conscious agency or not. I think this mechanism has no particular bias toward agency and indeed, if someone grew up in a world where rocks were rigged to explode and bears were tame then people would mistake harmless bears for inanimate but dangerous rocks.
There are other examples as well, discussions of psychological development in children and how subjectivity is presumed automatically in younger minds and how readily even adults will ascribe subjectivity even to abstract forms so that a circle might be said to 'chase' a triangle, etc. Again, these features of consciousness are tied to the HADD hypothesis, a protective mechanism which imagines ghosts to help avoid predators.
I submit that this Hyperactive Agency Detection Device is a weak hypothesis for explaining the subjective bias of subjectivity. To me, it makes more sense that agency is not mistakenly detected, but rather, exuberantly projected from it's source, a subjective agent. Human culture is nothing if not totemic. Masks, puppets, figurative drawings, voices and gestures, sculpture, drama, dance, song, etc reflect the nature of subjectivity itself - it's expression of character and creating stories with them.
Characters are what we are and what we do. This is 'our' most prominent purpose, and though it may have some obscure connection to genetic selection advantage, trying to understand subjective character dynamics from the perspective of evolutionary biology is like trying to understand the Sistine Chapel in terms of the chemical composition of Italian paint.
Character and myth doesn't come out of a moment of sudden reaction to a physical threat. That moment is relatively thoughtless. In fight of flight, circulation in the body is diverted away from the fictive circuitry of the brain's cortex and into the limbic brain and sympathetic nervous system.
If there was any real truth to the HADD theory, I would expect to see religions which had developed around the physical properties of 'agents' rather than a rich characterization of personality and history. The importance of something like footprints in tracking food and avoiding predators should develop into a detection-bias fueled worship of a magical foot, for example.
The HADD line of reasoning denies the specific cultural resonance of mythologies and focuses on the comparatively irrelevant feature of myth that relates to the use non-human agency in making characters more memorable. It collapses the 'who' and 'why' dimension of a person or 'a people' into a simplistic and counterfeit mechanism of 'what' and 'how'.
To me, the more powerful universality in myth is not non-human agency, but the description of superlative qualia. Myth is about exaggerating subjective essences to make them more tangible - to help us as individuals and members of a social group to understand our identity; 'who' we are. Simile and metaphor. Strong as Hercules. Wise as Athena. Powerful as Thor. The important part of these characters aren't that they are disembodied agents, it's the qualia of the agents themselves, the archetypal images of strength, wisdom, power, etc.
This is consciousness looking at it's own drives and fundamental principles and projecting them outward - not a hypertrophied twitch reflex for detecting potential predatory presences. Sometimes in myth, the superlative is not embodied in an anthropomorphic or zoomorphic form at all but as an abstract symmetry or inanimate synecdoche, like yin and yang, a magic spell/blessing/curse, a lucky horseshoe or a broken mirror, reading tea leaves or coins. I don't think that Buddhism posits any particular external agency, yet is considered a major world religion.
The spiritual dynamic is not always one of primitive man being deceived by his environment to have a better chance to survive, it is man actively seeking assistance from his environment for problems on complex and subtle levels. The universality of religion represents the structural form of human inquiry into it's own internal epistemology, to coax out intuitive insights from obscure regions of the psyche, not merely about matters of survival or reproduction, but about how to understand the stories we tell ourselves as individuals and as a society.